I no longer had breath in me. I clutched at the sharp jab of pain in my side as I bolted the last few metres. I was annoyed with myself; annoyed I went to bed late, which led to waking up late, which led to showering late, which led to breakfasting late, which led to catching the bus late, which led to running, which eventually led to the development of a stitch in my right side. I weaved through the throngs of people while cursing them silently, and unfairly, for just being there at that moment.
It was about 10 degrees outside, but I’m sure I felt a dribble of sweat run down my back as I finally entered the station. It was 10:05. The next bus to Masan departed at 10:10. And buses in Korea are incredibly punctual.
I stumbled to the ticket counter and felt my heart leap when I saw only one person in front of me. While she was busy with her purchase, I unzipped my wallet and fished out the 11 000 Won (R110) bus fee. When I looked up again there was still a person in front of me, only this was a different person. By now I’ve lost count of the number of times an *adjumma has cut the queue out of nowhere. It’s now as normal as seeing a Korean brushing their teeth midday in the office. This certainly doesn’t mean it no longer boils my blood, especially when the clock warns me it’s 10:08. When the queue-jumping adjumma finally finished and waddled off, I blurted out, “Masan!” to the startled cashier, grabbed my ticket and fled to the platform where the bus idled impatiently.
It was 10:09 when I hopped onto the almost full bus. The door closed behind me. I proceeded straight to the back in an unnecessary, clumsy rush, forgetting that I no longer needed to hurry. As I collapsed in my seat, the stench of fresh vomit filled my nostrils. I looked to my right to see what was once *gimbap splattered on the floor. I couldn’t even move to a different seat because I had taken the last seat and we had already started moving. But within twenty seconds the bus stopped again. The door opened and in walked an adjumma who looked as if she had spent too much time in the sun. She carried in her right hand a mop and in her left hand a bucket. Without the slightest glance around the bus, she made a beeline for the vomit as if she knew it was there the whole time, and with one clean swipe of her mop, every rice grain and every morsel of seaweed was gone. And just like the vomit, she too disappeared off the bus. But the smell lingered. It seemed like I was the only one fazed by it; everyone else gazed out the window, or tended to their babies, or thumbed at their phones, or took selfies, some even, despite the smell, managed to eat. And then finally the woman seated next to me opened the window. But she just shouted something to someone outside and then shut it again.
The bus driver headed down the aisle, informing the passengers we were departing and our seat belts were to be fastened. As he reached my seat, I clicked my seatbelt in when he pointed somewhere at my thighs. I nodded and showed him my fastened belt, but he shook his head and continued to point. I realised then that he was gesturing to my phone which I had forgotten in my lap. He beamed while he acted out a camera and made a ‘chicka chicka’ sound: the sound Koreans make to refer to the sound of a photograph being taken, sort of like how we know a gun goes ‘bang bang’.
“Ah, you want me to take a photo of you?” I asked, while gesturing what I was asking with my hands.
“Neh! Neh!” he said, his head almost falling off from nodding so vigorously.
I was a bit confused, not only because he was a random bus driver, but because he wanted me to take a photo of only him with my phone. But, more than anything, I was just relieved I finally understood why he kept looking at my lap.
His fingers immediately morphed into a peace sign and he yelled, “kimchi!”, the Korean version of ‘cheese!”, before I snapped the photograph. He giggled like I had just told him a rude joke and then continued back down the aisle, telling people robotically to fasten their seat belts as if he had not just asked a random passenger to take a photo of him.
After a rare delay due to the vomit, we were off. I slotted my earphones into my ears, drowning out the drone of the bus and the wail of babies and the crinkle of packets, and made myself comfortable.
The road to Masan was a long one. It felt like it was never going to end, but it did end, just two and a half hours later.
I packed up my bag and queued in the aisle to hand over my bus ticket and exit the bus. I made a mental note to not make eye contact with the bus driver. But when I reached the front, I saw from the corner of my eye his eyes light up like someone had just handed him an early Christmas present.
“Ah!” he exclaimed.
I smiled politely and handed my ticket to him.
“Stop, stop!” he shouted, giggling at his brave attempt at English.
I stopped. So did the people behind me. He gestured to the seat at the front of the bus.
“Shit down, please.” In Korean, the /S/ sound, when followed by an /i/ sound, is pronounced /sh/, so he was telling me to ‘sit down’ and not how to defaecate.
I immediately grew nervous. I watched jealously as the people behind me filed out of the bus to freedom, and then to my horror he locked the bus door.
His eyes were hidden behind his shiny blue sunglasses. He had the tiniest microphone attached to the side of his face and he chewed his gum incredibly fast.
“Picture? Together?” he managed between chewing.
I didn’t realise I was holding my breath until I let it out at that moment and laughed out of relief.
And there I was, at a bus station in Masan, in an empty, locked bus, posing for what turned out to be a string of selfies with the bus driver and half wishing I had missed this bus.
*adjumma: term referring to an oldish Korean woman.
*gimbap: a popular Korean food made with seaweed wrapped around rolls of rice, vegetables and meat, a popular travelling snack.